Do You Feel Like a 3rd Wheel in Your Marriage?

What does being a “third wheel” in your intimate relationship feel like?!

Do you …

  • feel second to something or someone else in your spouse/partner’s life?
  • experience a sense of competition or rivalry with activities or relationships that your partner engages with?
  • see your partner turning elsewhere to have their needs met?
  • feel hurt by this sense of competing for importance in your relationship?
  • believe that this dynamic is negatively affecting your ability to have a secure bond?

If you answered, “YES” to any of the questions above, you might be experiencing a dynamic in your relationship that could seriously lead to the demise of your relationship!

Why a partner “just” feeling like a third wheel is a significant problem for your relationship

The research actually shows that when one partner feels like a “third” wheel, it causes an: 

  • high levels of distress due to feeling their bond with their partner is being threatened
  • lower levels of relationship satisfaction
  • fear of losing one’s partner (yet also feel shame about their fear or jealousy)

This phenomenon is called “competing attachments” in EFT (Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy) or “thirds” in PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy) and actually has research behind it to show that it predicts disillusionment of relationships more than anything else!

Tatkin even says, “If this rule of “thirds” is not checked, it will certainly lead to the end of a relationship down the line. My experience as a couples therapist has shown that warning to be true.

“Thirds” pop the “Couple Bubble”

If you’re wondering, “What is a Couple Bubble?” It is almost like a cocoon or womb that that holds the couple together and protects them from outside elements or stressors in life. It’s an agreement or pact that WE COME FIRST as a couple.

If you’re unfamiliar with the “Couple Bubble” concept, here is a FREE video with an exercise you and your partner can do to create your own IMPENETRABLE Couple Bubble. (Scroll down my “Couples Counseling” page to watch the video).

As a PACT therapist, I was trained to listen for “thirds” that could be threats (and cause feelings of insecurity and betrayal) for my couple clients’ relationship.

The most common “third” is an affair.

As destructive as an affair can be, according to John Gottman, a prolific couples therapy researcher and author, there are 10 other ways (as serious) that partners can betray one another. Examples are: lying, breaking promises, absenteeism or coldness, forming a coalition against the partner, withdrawal of sexual interest, etc.

What are other examples of “thirds”?

In Wired for love, author and creator of the PACT couples therapy model Stan Tatkin describes a “third” as “people, objects, tasks, or anything else that could intrude on a couple bubble (an agreement to put the couple relationship before anything and everything else) or make it difficult to form one” (p. 119).

Examples include: in-laws, substance use, untreated mental health issues, porn, children, pets, work, friends, hobbies, technology (especially phones and Facebook), and even healthy activities like exercise and volunteer work.

How does this problem of “thirds” occur?

Tatkin explains that partners’ struggle with “thirds” originated before their intimate relationship and often affects more than one area. 

He found that partners who struggled with thirds were often pulled into an unhealthy alliance with one of their parents when they were growing up or even continued to be placed in this role as an adult. (Ex. Their parent turned to them to meet their emotional needs.) In other cases, one or both of their parents modeled placing other people or activities first before one another.

Sometimes a trauma or significant loss can cause a “third”. For example, I have worked with a number of couples who experience an adult child as the “third” that’s gotten in the middle of their intimate relationship. When we’ve looked deeper at the dynamic, we often find that the reason the partner continues to put their adult child before their spouse is that when they were a child, they were abandoned by a parent and vowed they would never do that to their child.

In other cases, partners developed a pattern of turning away from their family members (beginning with their parents) and toward something else to cope with difficult emotions. Perhaps their parents didn’t know how to effectively or appropriately calm, comfort, and soothe them (likely because their own parents didn’t know how to do that either), so as children and later adults they learned how to turn away from significant others and instead safely turn toward “thirds” instead.

Are “thirds” always a problem?

Interestingly, no! According to Stan Tatkin, “Thirds by themselves are neutral.” They can even bring added interest to their relationship or positive energy if they’re a hobby or interest your partner is passionate about. They can also be a mutual source of JOY or inspiration for a couple.

They only become negative when they’re [unintentionally] used by one partner in a way that causes a breach in the attachment system and a feeling of betrayal or consistently coming in second place.

  • For example, if a partner’s best friend or relative is always the first to know one’s partner’s good news or pain, the other partner will feel demoted as the most important confidant.
  • Another example is if a spouse showers their child or pet with ALL of their love and leaves nothing left for their spouse.
  • A final example and possibly the most common “third”, yet the least talked about is work because of the hurt partner’s ambivalence since they know their partner’s job might be the very thing that puts food on the table or allows them to live a comfortable lifestyle. Even work can have a huge impact on a relationship (see my story below in tip #4).

What are SOLUTIONS to “thirds” or “competing attachments”?

#1 Commit to PACT’s “Secure Functioning” principles, such as: 

  1. We come first.
  2. We do whatever it takes to make our partner feel safe, secure, and loved. (Couple Bubble)
  3. We protect our partner.
  4. We put our relationship first. We don’t make our partner feel like a third wheel.
  5. We repair hurts quickly and effectively.

I think 1-4 ensures that our partner will feel that they matter and are extremely important to us. What I love about the 5th principle is that it allows us to be human and correct our mistakes when we get off course.

#2 Continue to have open conversations with your partner about how you’re juggling life’s responsibilities to ensure that they feel they are a TOP priority

Finding a healthy balance among all of life’s responsibilities is challenging for most of us. It can help to agree to non-judgmental “check ins” with your partner to deepen your sense of being a team by processing what’s going well and what’s challenging in upholding your priorities, especially putting your relationship first.

#3 Be courageous and turn toward your partner to soothe your stress and comfort you.

Oftentimes partners developed coping skills (that preceded their intimate relationship) in which they turned toward food, substances, porn, technology, or other people to provide numbing, comforting, a release, or support.

Partners develop a MUCH stronger bond and can experience an even more profound level of comfort when they have the courage to turn toward one another. It is our biological nature or how we are wired to turn toward another human for comfort and it truly deepens our love and sense of being unconditionally accepted.

It took me years before I was able to consistently turn away from food and toward my husband for comfort. Now, I can confidently express my genuine feelings and ask him to rub my back, tell me, “Everything’s going to be okay”, “You’ve got this. I believe in you”, to stare into my eyes and smile at me, and hold me.

#4 Set boundaries and follow through with consequences if your partner continues to choose something or someone else above you!

This intervention might sound shocking coming from an empathetic couples therapist, so I understand if you choose to disregard this tip. I just know that it worked for me. At year three of my marriage, my husband had enough of me putting my work first and my marriage second. I was working two jobs wrapped into one (it was a creative way my employer could save money)- I was a school social worker and a special education/504 coordinator at a K-8 school. Even with the unrealistic expectation that anyone could have filled that role, my “workaholism” wasn’t new.

My continually breaking promises, to come home from my job at a certain time and spend more time with my husband, led to a lot of hurt on his part. So, he finally told me that if I didn’t get home when I agreed, he would have dinner without me and spend the rest of the night doing his own thing, which could entail him going out with friends, doing an activity without me or (the worst for me) staying at home, but ignoring me.

I admit this might sound overly harsh, but it provided the wake up call I needed that I was jeopardizing my marriage and needed to shift my priorities if I wanted to make my marriage work. I am grateful to my husband for sticking to his boundaries and allowing me to experience consequences. His actions helped me understand his pain and motivated me to change.

#5 Increase your “A.R.E.” in your relationship. (accessibility, responsiveness, and engagement)

What is A.R.E.? This is an important concept and skill set in Emotionally Focused Therapy. The more A.R.E. in one’s intimate relationship, the more secure the bond. Here are a few examples:

Accessibility – “I can get my partner’s attention easily.”

Responsive- “If I need connection or comfort, my partner will be there for me.”

Emotionally Engaged- “I know that my partner cares enough about my joys, hurts, and fears.”

When a partner, on a daily basis, puts away their phone, looks into the eyes of their beloved and sincerely asks, “How are you? What’s going on in your world?” and totally listens (even if it’s only for 15-30 minutes), this is one way to build A.R.E., trust, and a secure bond.

The more that partners get present with each other, attune to one another’s emotions, emotionally respond with validation and empathy, and demonstrate that their partner comes first, “thirds” can become neutralized and no longer remain a threat. 

If you would like help in putting “thirds” where they belong- outside of your “couple bubble” so you and your partner can come first again, contact Lana Isaacson, LCSW, CAC III today.

I can help you at my Centennial or Lakewood, CO office. You can reach me at: 720.432.5262, [email protected], or set up your first session or free 15 or 30 minute consultation here on my online calendar.